Volunteer mission to Mississippi

A group from a Baltimore County church has spent the past week making a hurricane-battered Biloxi home livable again


BILOXI, Miss. -- In the shade of the oak tree her mother planted more than 50 years ago, Veronica Davis stood firm outside her small one-story house, which Hurricane Katrina nearly destroyed seven months ago and which she has no intention of leaving.

Around the grounds, a team of volunteers from a Baltimore County church worked steadily, removing debris from the house, replacing damaged flooring, installing wiring and cleaning up the yard that once boasted lilies and a lemon tree. The group arrived a week ago to help make the house livable again.

"It looks like a miracle been done here," said Davis, 58, who since September has been staying with her grandchildren in a small trailer parked in the yard. "You couldn't ask for a better deal."

Davis has a deep connection to the house, a three-bedroom brick-faced structure with a small porch and a carport, now collapsed. Her parents purchased the land for $176 in the 1940s - her mother sold a hog to help raise the money, and her father built the house himself. Davis grew up there with nine brothers and sisters, and she raised some of her own children here, not to mention the two grandchildren living with her when Katrina struck.

"I lived my whole life right here," she said. The team of 15 or so volunteers laboring to repair the house shares a goal with her - to make it habitable as quickly as possible so Davis can reclaim the life she knew. The volunteers are among 25 high school students, most on spring break, accompanied by seven adults. They constitute the most recent of seven teams sent down by Grace Fellowship Church, a 4,000-member, nondenominational congregation in Timonium.

For many volunteers, media images of Katrina's destruction paled in comparison to the actual damage. A city of about 50,000 residents, Biloxi took a near-direct hit from Katrina, and many neighborhoods remain devastated. Some houses, especially those close to the water, disintegrated in the onslaught of wind and waves. Tens of thousands of people are still living in trailers supplied by the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency.

"I knew that it was bad, but I didn't realize the magnitude of the devastation," said Jenny Conaway, a 22-year-old from Towson and one of the trip's leaders. "Just so many houses that had been lifted or shifted off their foundations."

Davis fared better than many of her neighbors. She and her two grandchildren, 14-year-old Trenton and 5-year-old Brittany, fled to Montgomery, Ala., just as the storm struck Biloxi. Her next-door neighbor drowned, as did 31 people in an apartment building just behind her house. Two other neighbors swam to safety.

She returned to Biloxi a few days after the storm to find her house a wreck. The storm surge had carried away most of her possessions and torn apart much of the rest.

Even then she knew she would not leave the house. When Hurricane Camille struck in 1969, the house was badly damaged, she said. But her father repaired it and even put on an addition. This time, however, Davis had no one to help her and no money to pay for repairs.

Her predicament came to the attention of nearby Christus Victor Lutheran Church, which is coordinating volunteers from Grace Fellowship and other churches eager to help. The Grace Fellowship crew began work Tuesday, and after three days of nailing, hauling, lifting and wiring, they had gone a long way toward making the house habitable. They finished laying down a plywood subfloor and completely rewired and insulated the house.

"We've made some big progress," said Conaway.

The house is not ready, but Davis said she hopes to move in perhaps as early as June. A volunteer crew from another church is set to do more work next week.

"I'm very happy," she said.

The young volunteers said assisting the storm victims is worth all the hard work.

"It's just helping people," said 18-year-old Hereford High School senior Caitlin Paradiso as she took a break from stacking hundreds of bricks that the storm pulled from the sides of the house. "It's so rewarding, especially if you get to meet the people you're helping."

Some have gone down more than once.

"It is such a great feeling to see the people I was helping. They are so appreciative," said 18-year-old Cary Lyon Jr.

Lyon, who is home schooled and finished his academic year early, was able to make three visits to Mississippi, spending eight weeks here overall.

Another Grace member, Jim Antonakos, has stayed even longer. After seeing the destruction on TV, the 30-year-old Towson insurance salesman raised $3,500 from friends and family and planned to volunteer for three months. He took a leave of absence from his job in October and has been here almost continuously ever since.

At first, Antonakos performed manual labor, as do most volunteers. But a few weeks after arriving, he took on a new task: coordinating the 200 or so volunteers who arrive every week at the Christus Victor church.

Antonakos said the experience has been "amazing."

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